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Saving Worlds

Preserving the digital and virtual.

Courtesy CCP

EVE ONLINE: Fleeting game moments have cultural impact.

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Library curator Henry Lowood wants to discover more artifacts from PLATO. Not the Plato of Greek philosophy, but rather a relic of interactive technology. Lowood's PLATO is a defunct computer system—Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations.

PLATO, conceived in the 1960s as a computerized education project at the University of Illinois, included pioneering examples of multiplayer online video games. Little visual evidence of those games and their rudimentary online sessions has survived, so that's the kind of material Lowood dreams of finding.

But Lowood, curator for the libraries' history of science and technology collections, is not optimistic that anyone who played those games was thinking about recording the experiences for researchers. That's one of the reasons he's ultraconscious of collecting and saving as much other game history as feasible.

“If we don't make an effort to preserve this material now,” Lowood says, “historians, writers, students and others will have no idea 100 years from now how digital cultures evolved.”

With that and more in mind, he's overseeing a two-year grant to the Stanford libraries for a project called Preserving Virtual Worlds. The work, which takes note of digital content in many forms, is particularly focused on the challenges of chronicling what happens in computer-created environments. The research encompasses the virtual reality of Second Life, an avatar-populated “world” in which participants simulate real-life behavior, as well as fantasy activities from games such as World of Warcraft.

“This is the first academic project engaging these kinds of issues about the history and nature of virtual worlds,” Lowood says. The grant, part of a national digital preservation program managed by the Library of Congress, runs through 2009 and provides about $140,000 to Stanford for staffing and technology costs. Three other universities—the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Maryland and Rochester Institute of Technology—have grants for other slices of the project.

Lowood, co-director of the Humanities Laboratory, has been on the cutting edge of these studies for years. The lab's work includes the How They Got Game project, which explores the impact of electronic games. Among the people central to the virtual worlds project is Professor Michael Shanks, lab co-director and archaeologist.

Lowood's team for the grant will provide a wide range of contributions, including histories for three landmark games: Doom, SimCity and Super Mario Bros. 3. But the most ambitious work may be Lowood's efforts to build an extensive archive about behavior within virtual worlds. The heart of that task is acquiring or recording video that captures memorable moments online.

This summer, for instance, a team member recorded the final minutes of EA-Land, previously known as The Sims Online. Before the game was discontinued by publisher Electronic Arts, players' avatars came together onscreen while the participants poured out emotions in text bubbles (“i think it'll hit me when it's gone”).

At a workshop in August, Lowood showed video from a variety of online settings. Although the specific moments were striking, the ultimate significance was that those events had been preserved, in contrast to countless occurrences that had come and gone without consideration for their historical value.

One of Lowood's recent additions to the virtual worlds archive is a short compilation of screenshots and video on the evolution of games from text adventures, in which game action was typed out descriptively, to graphically sophisticated titles.

Perhaps the most compelling footage shows an attack from Eve Online, a science fiction game. An array of small spaceships serving the “Goonswarm” alliance assaults a much larger ship from another group, while the audio track follows the frenzied barking of commands to keep up the pressure. When the large ship is destroyed, there is a cacophony of online voices shrieking in triumph.

How do events like that fit into the larger culture?

“The Library of Congress has always collected across a broad spectrum of content types and subjects, ranging from works of serious scholarship to icons of pop culture,” says Beth Dulabahn, director of integration management for the Library of Congress.

“Video games fit right in with that tradition. Besides showing us how society has entertained itself, they also provide a graphic picture of how technology itself has evolved over the decades.”

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